Doubting the ‘Fox News bubble’

See update for October 11, 2020, at bottom of post.


Fox News is the enemy. Or so I’ve been hearing for a while now.

The claim, in essence—I have repeated this myself—is that as the country has become polarized, we have come to distrust each others’ sources of information and even each others’ motivations.

Donald Trump, for example, is said to trust Fox News even over U.S. intelligence agencies. He calls in to their opinion shows, they amplify what he says, he hears it repeated back to him, and he takes it as confirmation. The picture is of a self-reinforcing feedback loop of misinformation.

I have generally considered Trump to be an authoritarian populist,[1] and one of the hallmarks of this tendency is hierarchically invidious monism,[2] a term coined by Elizabeth Minnich to describe

a system in which one category is taken to be not literally all there is, but the highest, most significant, most valuable, and critically, most real category. This hierarchical monism turns all relevant others into failures, or lesser forms, of the one ‘kind.’[3]

Minnich prefers this term to ‘dualism’ because the latter term critically fails[4] to reflect the preference (much too weak a word) assigned to one side in many such pairings, such as rich versus poor, healthy versus unhealthy, white versus Black, male versus female, and so on.[5]

And so it goes with Fox News. It is alleged that its viewers prefer (again, much too weak a word) it and its vitriol to all other sources of information. The disparagement has become mutual. Even a socially conservative, capitalist libertarian professor I had in my masters’ program regarded Fox News as not really news, to say nothing of how his more liberal colleagues felt about the network.

And it’s not just Fox News. Jason Togyer shows how Facebook has undermined small local newspapers through outsized competition for advertising dollars.[6] But also, quoting at length:

There has been a proliferation of community and neighborhood “news” groups on Facebook. In McKeesport alone, there are at least a dozen competing Facebook groups that claim they’re devoted to community news. White Oak, a neighboring borough, has at least seven, and Glassport, another adjoining municipality, has five.

But in reality, few of them post what would be traditionally considered news. Some consist mainly of lost dog reports, reviews of local diners, funny photos and church announcements. That’s pretty harmless, and even uplifting, if not particularly informative.

Yet increasingly, the content in some “community news” groups reflects the same dangerous tensions and divisions for which Facebook is being blamed for stoking nationally. A few of them traffic in blatant racism. Black teenagers wandering through a mostly white neighborhood will immediately set off posts about “strange people” being seen walking the streets, and reminding residents to “watch your car and lock up your valuables!” 

Misleading information dominates other “news” groups. Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, posts about local businesses requiring customers to wear face masks, for instance, inevitably lead to the same familiar arguments: Yes, face masks do slow the spread of airborne virus particles. No, you cannot get carbon monoxide poisoning from wearing a face mask. Yet both theories have passionate defenders in Facebook’s “community news” groups.[7]

Togyer is brilliant—seriously, he is. His insights in the Columbia Journalism Review’s Year of Fear series have contributed enormously to my understanding of what has happened in the Pittsburgh area in the intervening fifty years since I lived here for a couple years as a kid.

But as I’ve been driving people around,[8] I’ve become skeptical. As a human scientist, one of my areas of emphasis is epistemology: How people ‘know’ what they claim to know. There are many such methods, including scientific method (positivism), religion, tradition, psychology, and so on. It’s my job to recognize these ways of understanding.

And so, we would understand the ‘Fox News bubble’ as a self-reinforcing source of understanding, an authoritarian populist epistemology. But there is something overwrought about it all. In advocating all manner of conspiracy theories, especially surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, some of my passengers have been too vociferous.

It crystallized for me one day when Allegheny County bars were all closed, due to pandemic lockdown restrictions,[9] and I was transporting a couple white men, probably about my age if not a little older, just across the county line to a bar in Westmoreland County. They were convinced, they claimed, that bars were not responsible for an increase in COVID-19 cases (they were, both nationally[10] and in Allegheny County[11]) but that the spike had to be due to anti-racism protests and that bars had been unfairly maligned.

On the one hand this conspiracy theory draws upon a sense of white grievance that denies systemic racism. This grievance has become pronounced in southwestern Pennsylvania due to the collapse of the steel industry.[12] And of course, this ‘theory’ rationalizes those white passengers’ behavior. Pittsburgh has been described to me as “a drinking town with a football problem.” These passengers wanted to go to a bar and get drunk. They justify this behavior by denying reality.

But what impressed me the stridency with which these passengers advanced their claims. It was as if they were seeking to convince themselves even more than they were attempting to convince me. One might even suspect that they wanted me to contribute to this self-reinforcing feedback of misinformation, which of course I refuse to do.

It’s not only been those two passengers and not even just been whites from whom I’ve heard conspiracy theories so stridently advocated. There are suspicions that hospitals are inflating case counts for funding (actually, reported numbers likely undercount the true toll[13]), doubts that COVID-19 is any more serious, really, than the flu, blame on 5G, and so on.

What I’m not hearing here is the quiet confidence of certainty, but rather grievance clutching at straws for sympathy and even attention. That leads me to question the entire narrative about the self-reinforcing feedback of misinformation among conservatives: If, indeed, they are so certain, why are they turning to me for validation?


Update, October 11, 2020:

I think Alice is noticing something similar to what I noticed in the foregoing post.

I had a passenger today (October 11) get into my car in Peters Township, which is just across the line into Washington County. He was very loud, ranting about Black Lives Matter and Antifa, saying something about how 250 of them had allegedly been “turned in.” (I have found no corresponding story about this in the news tonight.)

I remained silent and as he went on, I wondered why he assumed I would approve. Of course, I am white. And of course, I am male. So of course I must support Donald Trump. (I won’t even vote for Democrats, let alone Republicans,[14] but you know, logic just is not an authoritarian populist strength.)

He made those assumptions about my political leanings even as he argued that whites had taken over Black Lives Matter, further compounding his illogic. (I have seen a few demonstrations in support of the cause where the protesters were indeed all white and yes, I do wonder about, to borrow a title from a chapter on this very issue, “the problem of speaking for others.”[15])

But this loudness, this emphatic quality is what leads me to doubt that Trumpsters really believe what they say. At some unacknowledged level, there must be doubt that propels the evangelism, that seeks validation from others.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “The seven tendencies of conservatism,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d., https://disunitedstates.com/the-seven-tendencies-of-conservatism/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  3. [3]Elizabeth Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005), p. 111.
  4. [4]Elizabeth Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  5. [5]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991); George Lakoff, Moral Politics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  6. [6]Jason Togyer, “How Facebook has undermined communal conversation in McKeesport,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 18, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/year-of-fear-chapter-19-facebook-undermined-conversation-in-mckeesport.php
  7. [7]Jason Togyer, “How Facebook has undermined communal conversation in McKeesport,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 18, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/year-of-fear-chapter-19-facebook-undermined-conversation-in-mckeesport.php
  8. [8]Due to my failure to obtain gainful employment, I have been reduced to driving for Lyft and Uber: David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/
  9. [9]KDKA, “‘For The First Time…Allegheny Co. Led The State In The Number Of New COVID-19 Cases’: Allegheny Co. Officials Ban On-Site Consumption Of Alcohol At Local Bars,” June 28, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/28/allegheny-co-highest-case-numbers-bans-on-site-drinking/; KDKA, “Allegheny Co. Health Officials: Spike In New Coronavirus Cases Linked To Bars, Not Protests,” June 29, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/29/spike-in-coronavirus-cases-linked-to-bars-not-protests/; Andy Sheehan, “Allegheny County Closes Bars, Restaurants, Casinos And All Activities That Involve Over 25 People For One Week,” KDKA, July 2, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/07/02/allegheny-county-bar-restaurant-casino-closure/
  10. [10]Talal Ansari, “Texas Governor Rolls Back Reopening as U.S. Virus Cases Hit Record,” Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-latest-news-06-26-2020-11593159630; Annie Gowen, Arelis R. Hernández, and Lori Rozsa, “Young people urged to take virus more seriously as pandemic worsens in U.S.,” Washington Post, June 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/young-people-are-driving-a-spike-in-coronavirus-infections-officials-say/2020/06/27/3654638c-b7b4-11ea-a510-55bf26485c93_story.html; Thomas Heath and Hannah Denham, “Dow tumbles 730 points as covid-19 flare-ups force states to push back reopening,” Washington Post, June 26, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/26/stocks-markets-today-texas-coronavirus/; Claire Lampen, Hannah Gold, and Amanda Arnold, “Everything to Know About the Coronavirus in the United States,” Cut, June 24, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/which-states-have-coronavirus-and-how-do-you-minimize-risk.html; Christina Maxouris, “Officials say states like Arizona and Texas reopened too quickly after soaring Covid-19 cases,” CNN, July 6, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/06/health/us-coronavirus-monday/index.html; Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey, and Yasmeen Abutaleb, “With Trump leading the way, America’s coronavirus failures exposed by record surge in new infections,” Washington Post, June 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/with-trump-leading-the-way-americas-coronavirus-failures-exposed-by-record-surge-in-new-infections/2020/06/27/bd15aea2-b7c4-11ea-a8da-693df3d7674a_story.html; Meg Wagner et al., “Fauci, Redfield testify on Covid-19 reopening as cases rise,” CNN, June 30, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/webview/politics/live-news/covid-19-school-work-reopening-testimony-06-30-20/h_cc7cf09eae87064e72f75af30984acd3
  11. [11]Samson X. Horne, “Allegheny County reports 90 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily total for county,” Tribune-Review, June 27, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/allegheny-county-reports-highest-daily-total-of-coronavirus-cases-at-90/; KDKA, “‘For The First Time…Allegheny Co. Led The State In The Number Of New COVID-19 Cases’: Allegheny Co. Officials Ban On-Site Consumption Of Alcohol At Local Bars,” June 28, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/28/allegheny-co-highest-case-numbers-bans-on-site-drinking/; KDKA, “Allegheny Co. Health Officials: Spike In New Coronavirus Cases Linked To Bars, Not Protests,” June 29, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/29/spike-in-coronavirus-cases-linked-to-bars-not-protests/; Madasyn Lee, “Allegheny County exceeds highest coronavirus case total with 96 new cases,” Tribune-Review, June 28, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/allegheny-county-exceeds-highest-coronavirus-case-total-with-96-new-cases/; Andy Sheehan, “Allegheny County Closes Bars, Restaurants, Casinos And All Activities That Involve Over 25 People For One Week,” KDKA, July 2, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/07/02/allegheny-county-bar-restaurant-casino-closure/; John Shumway, “‘People Don’t Care’: Recent Jump In Allegheny County Coronavirus Cases Linked To People In Their 20s, 30s,” KDKA, June 23, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/23/jump-in-allegheny-county-coronavirus-cases-linked-to-young-people/; Maria Simbra, “‘It’s Negligence’: Young People Hosting Coronavirus Parties, Betting On Who Gets Infected First,” KDKA, July 3, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/07/03/coronavirus-parties-young-people/; Teghan Simonton, “61 new coronavirus cases reported in Allegheny County, highest in 2 months,” Tribune-Review, June 26, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/61-new-cases-of-coronavirus-reported-in-allegheny-county-2-deaths/; Teghan Simonton, “83 new cases of coronavirus in Allegheny County, no new deaths,” Tribune-Review, June 29, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/83-new-cases-of-coronavirus-in-allegheny-county-no-new-deaths/; Teghan Simonton, “Allegheny County tops 230 new coronavirus cases,” Tribune-Review, July 2, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/allegheny-county-tops-230-new-coronavirus-cases-no-deaths/; Megan Tomasic, “505 new coronavirus cases, 3 deaths reported in Pa.,” Tribune-Review, June 28, 2020, https://triblive.com/news/pennsylvania/505-new-coronavirus-cases-3-deaths-reported-in-pa/; WTAE, “Masks are now mandatory in all public spaces in Pennsylvania,” July 1, 2020, https://www.wtae.com/article/masks-are-now-mandatory-in-all-public-spaces-in-pennsylvania/33026253
  12. [12]Jason Togyer, “Fear and Loathing in the Time of Coronavirus,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 25, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/mckeesport-year-of-fear-covid-19-pandemic.php
  13. [13]Emma Brown et al., “U.S. deaths soared in early weeks of pandemic, far exceeding number attributed to covid-19,” Washington Post, April 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2020/04/27/covid-19-death-toll-undercounted/; Emma Brown, Beth Reinhard, and Aaron C. Davis, “Coronavirus death toll: Americans are almost certainly dying of covid-19 but being left out of the official count,” Washington Post, April 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/coronavirus-death-toll-americans-are-almost-certainly-dying-of-covid-19-but-being-left-out-of-the-official-count/2020/04/05/71d67982-747e-11ea-87da-77a8136c1a6d_story.html; Denise Lu, “The True Coronavirus Toll in the U.S. Has Already Surpassed 200,000,” New York Times, August 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/12/us/covid-deaths-us.html
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Voting for complicity,” Not Housebroken, October 1, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/20/voting-for-complicity/; David Benfell, “The pandemic as a harbinger,” Not Housebroken, October 9, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/10/09/the-pandemic-as-a-harbinger/
  15. [15]Linda Martín Alcott, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, eds. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1995), 97-119.